Tuesday, March 18, 2014

attention going going (gone)

Yesterday I texted Ben as he de-iced on a runway to tell him I wanted to turn off texting on my phone -- too much, too constant, too demanding.  But immediately I realized that wouldn't work because though I might try to announce my non-texting existence to everyone I know, someone somewhere (or several someone's) would still text some child-related information, some bottom-of-the-heart confession, some question awaiting a response that I would miss and he or she wouldn't know I had simply missed it, and there we'd be.  There is no away setting for texts (that I now of), which could at least provide clearly communicated break.

I started thinking about this in earnest when I was driving on vacation with Ben in January.  I didn't know at first what felt so relaxing, was it being on an island, the chickens on the side of the road, the sea-wind through the windows, the winding coast, the wearing a bathing suit and flip flops in January?  Of course it was each of those things, but what I was specifically noticing as I wound along the roads, was the lack of texting, my real sense of vacation came in from not multi-tasking.

What if I lived that way all the time?

Immediate next question, is that even possible?

No, of course it's not REALLY possible to live with three small children and not multi-task.  This morning, for example, while I was having a discussion with four other women, Maeve handed me a doll, a shoe, a sock, another shoe, a remote, a book, stole my pen, opened her mouth for yogurt again and again, spit yogurt out, climbed on top of me and put her hands on my cheeks, handed me a giant baby doll again, fished for the pen from under my leg, stole raspberries off of other people's plates etc.  I multi-tasked.

But there is tending-to while-doing-another-thing, like this morning, and there is super-multi-tasking like texting while driving; asking Eden how her day was while measuring and cooking, half-listening and never looking at her eyes;  talking on the phone while steering the stroller across a busy street with my elbow while also yelling directions to Silas and Eden so they don't get hit by a car -- embarrassing.

I am aware that texting, keeping up with people and information, posting and recording photos/stories/blurbs breeds a sense of productivity: we feel busy; we feel valued; we feel valuable on some level, or we wouldn't do it.  But the past couple of weeks what I've most felt is discontent.  I've been rushed and been rushing people.  I've felt perpetually distracted and constantly interrupted -- just this minute my phone whistled and I picked it up to read a text!!!  Seriously??! Case in point.

Sometimes I have lengthy conversations over text -- easier than editing in front of kids or trying to listen and speak over background noise etc.  But texted conversations unfold in slow-motion, and I am not 100% engaged the way I would be on a phone call, nor am I clearly cut off from the people around me the way I would if I were speaking.  Instead my attention is sawed in half as I stand there half-present to both parties, typing with my thumbs -- raggedy all around.

How many times have I said I am going to put my phone in the back of the car when I drive so I can't reach it, that I'm going to leave my phone in a basket by the front door to be intentional about when I check it, that I am going to...  But the fact is, I keep doing the same things I always do, phone on my hip -- or in my hand.  I'm like Maeve, yelling out for help as I press send.

I'm reading Ann Voskamp's 1,000 Gifts again, as slowly as ever, and I can't move past chapter four because I want to soak in these words until I live them:

Time is a relentless river.  It rages on, a respecter of no one.  And this, this is the only way to slow time: When I fully enter time's swift current, enter into the current moment with the weight of all my attention, I slow the torrent with the weight of me all here... Giving thanks for one thousand things is ultimately an invitation to slow time down with weight of full attention...
     [W]hen I get angsty and knotted about tomorrow, when I sorrow for what is gone, [my sister's] words always tugging me to stay right here -- 'Wherever you are, be all there.' I have lived the runner, panting ahead in worry, pounding back in regrets, terrified to live in the present, because here-time asks me to do the hardest of all: just open wide and receive.

Time's thundering presence makes me cower when I see it in Silas's kid-boy eyes that harbor so many quiet thoughts, when I hold Maeve's foot and it nearly fills my hand, when I see my dad's knees ache up the stairs.  Time takes my breath away.  So this idea of slowing it down, of meeting it with full attention, of filling it with thanks so I inhabit the minutes that pass rather than let them blow through me, I want that.  I want to speak that last sentence and end it with, "and I am."

I picked up the paper tonight and sat on the couch though it was 5:30 and I had only a vague notion of making eggs for dinner -- an unprecedented move -- and I read.  It was radical (but to be fair, it was also Sunday's paper); no one missed me, and no one rushed.  I had written in my journal just hours before that I feel frenetic, and there in the paper was this headline: You're Probably too Busy to Read this: on how a frenetic life became a status symbol.  The article goes on to say: Somewhere around the end of the 20th century, busyness became not just a way of life but a badge of honor.  And life, sociologist say, became an exhausting everydayathon.  People now tell pollsters that they're too busy to register to vote, too busy to date, to make friends outside the office, to take a vacation, to sleep, to have sex.  As for multitasking, one 2012 survey found that 38 million Americans shop on their smart-phones while sitting on the toilet.  And another found that the compulsion to multitask was making us as stupid as if we were stoned."

I don't want to live as if I were stoned!  The article, worth a quick read, looks at how our culture's view of leisure evolved (or failed to) throughout the 20th century and how our brains are most open to creativity and inspiration when they are most idle, among other things.

It's not just the texting, it's the busyness.  We each construct it differently around us -- and hopefully there are some who have resisted constructing it altogether! -- our house of cards, our badge of honor.


Monday, March 17, 2014


Maeve, she's a wild rascal these days.  She even looks like a rascal most of the time: curls spiraling off her head, smudged face, pen scribbled on her palms and pant legs, chubby bare feet on the cold floors.

Though her vocabulary is still tiny, she has some things to say.  Unlike Silas and Eden, who would yank on power cords and rip book pages hidden silently in the house, Maeve yells.  It starts like this from some other room: 

Mama, Mama, like a song, and I ignore it because it's the song she sings all day every day.
Maaaamaa!  MaaaaaaMaaaaaaa! Still I let it go to squeeze another minute out of whatever I'm doing.
MaaaaaMAAAAA!  MAMA!!!  MAMAAA!!  Urgency in that voice, so I follow it down the hall.  The bathroom door is closed, and when I open it, there she is with both hands splashing wildly in the toilet, yelling for me at the top of her lungs.


Mama, Mama, Mama  Absentmindedly, Hi Maeve
Maaamaa!  Again, Hi Maeve wherever you are
Maaamaaa! MaaamaAAA! I take pause.
MAMA! MAMA! MAMA!  I run.  She's sitting at the top of the stairs in Silas's room, scribbling down his wall and onto the wood with a Sharpie, waiting for me to stop her.

Even sitting next to me on the rug, I'll hear quietly at my elbow in almost a whisper,
mama... mama... and look down to see her holding my phone with both hands like a confession.

I know I shouldn't do this but this is SO FUN I CANNOT HELP IT!!  MAMA! I'M DOING IT!  I'M STILL DOING IT!  MAAAMAAAA!!!!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Play Dates (we didn't use to call them this, did we? we just said "play")

Jasmine blooms on our table, a plant I carried home from California tucked into a shoulder bag so we could have it waft through our house again, even in brick and winter.  At least this week there is no snow anywhere, and every few days the temperature pokes its head into spring.  The world slowly transforms, and I wait.

There are five children in my house right now and miraculously I am sitting at the table writing with a cup of tea.  Play dates are a new thing for us.  I've had vague angst about having kids over, that they'd be bored, or brazenly speak truth about how messy things look, or say they don't like our house or food, slander me to their parents, and not want to come back (ha!).

Maybe it is the term, itself, "play date."  Why don't we just say "play" -- the noun and verb that frees up our children and names the afternoon.  Instead we have weighty "date" trailing after like an anchor.  Last year I attended several "play dates" in which there were pre-made snacks on pretty plates, brand new art kits laid out, and board games already set up -- a date, indeed.  For a while after those (traumatizing) dates, I bought that having kids over had to look like that, so we simply didn't have kids over.  Somewhere along the lines, though, just recently, I remembered what it was actually like to play with friends, to lie on the basement rug and toss the question back and forth, the list of choices, to tease ideas out of our own aimlessness and play:

What do you want to do? 
I don't know, what do you want to do?
I don't know.  what do you want to do?

I don't know.  
Well, we could draw...
Or play hide and seek, or make a fort...
Or we could go for a walk or...

Bored or not, we wound our way to our own fun, every time, or we got in a fight and went home only to love each other again the next morning.  So thankfully, I've been freed from the momentary fear that play dates were, in fact, all about me.  It's so much more fun this way.  Whew.


There is much and little to report.  It's been a month of all things: mornings when by 8AM everyone has either screamed or cried, still no one's wearing shoes, and hair remains knotted and unruly even onto the school bus; mornings when lunch has been neatly sliced and packed, backpacks filled, hair braided in tiny brown braids, and we've held hands walking to the bus stop.  There have been days I've lain in bed at night replaying the shadows of the day, and moments so much wind has filled my sails I thought I'd burst.  Our slippery slate walk has iced and melted, been buried and shoveled and buried again by snow.  The kids have had snow days.  I had my own snow days, stuck solo in California for two extra days because of east coast weather!  And now the bulbs are poking green stalks from the dirt to remind us no matter how frozen the ground is, spring comes.

All year I've kept looking for rhythm for our days, the scaffolding of the week to hang my expectations on, the solid structure beneath all we're doing.  What I'm realizing is that the rhythm is more syncopated than I thought.  It's more like jazz and less like a march.  There is scatting and remixes; I'm starting to come with looser feet.